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Family Reclaims Cells after 62 Years

Update Date: Aug 08, 2013 03:38 PM EDT

Although not everyone might know who Henrietta Lacks is, her cells are the reason why medicine has advanced so much within the past six decades. In 1951, Lacks passed away at the age of 31 in Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital after suffering from cervical cancer. In order to study cervical cancer, the doctors had taken some samples of Lacks' tumor cells. Much to their dismay, Lack's cells, which are now called HeLa cells, were capable of thriving in the laboratory setting, a feature that was never discovered before at that time.

The HeLa cells went on and became a vital part in over 74,000 studies, several of which opened up research into cell biology, vaccines, cancer and in vitro fertilization. Despite becoming a vital part of medical science, the HeLa cells are also a huge reminder of the inequality that existed during those times. When Lacks passed away, the doctors had removed her cells without her family's consent. Since they were poor, uneducated and African American, nothing was offered to Lack's family for her cells at the time knowing that the family would not comeback and sue for rights if they ever found out. The family first heard about HeLa cells when they were contacted in 1973 by a scientist who wanted a blood sample. By then, Lack's cells were already being shipped throughout the world and used in groundbreaking studies.

"In 20 years at N.I.H. [National Institute of Health], I can't remember something like this," Dr. Francis S. Collins, the N.I.H. director said.

For 62 long years, the family had no say on what the cells would be used for. They also received no compensation for the cells that went on to do great things. Now, after four months of discussion, the N.I.H has finally agreed to give some decision making power to Lacks' family.  The family and Lacks will now get the recognition that was long over due. Although the agreement does not allow the family to receive any payments from future research using HeLa cells, it is still a monumental step in giving something back to a family.

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